Milton Keynes Dons: a force for good in English football?
Controversy Week kicks off on The Seventy Two with a divisive perspective on one of the most controversial clubs in the Football League – Milton Keynes Dons.
There were seven of them. No, eight. Nine. Forty-seven, it seemed like at times. All pushing forward. All going for goals. All ending up on the losing side. As Xavi recently said, “sometimes, in football, the result is the imposter”.
Peterborough United dominated for long periods at the Stadium:MK last Monday and still returned back to Cambridgeshire with nothing except the moral high ground. Not just given their side’s expansive, attractive, attacking approach, either. Most visiting fans leave Milton Keynes with a sense of superiority, regardless of the result. The place has no history, no tradition… But this is well-chartered territory.
Milton Keynes Dons have long been viewed as a negative entity by the majority of opposition supporters. Their story provides plenty of ammunition for detractors and the threat of franchise football should never be forgotten. Surely it is infinitely preferable for a club to wither and die than for its past to be forever linked, however tenuously, to an entirely different setup? Again, all well-documented.
Time is a great healer and attitudes have softened in some parts towards Milton Keynes Dons since their early days. Nonetheless, there were suggestions that this website should have been labelled The Seventy One and that no articles should have been written about the club.
Let’s get back to that title. What possible reasons could be given for the unsavoury notion of attaching positivity to Milton Keynes Dons in any way? Well, four actually.
Milton Keynes Dons are not the first club to unite opposition supporters in common hatred. Other clubs have been hated by many – Leeds United and Millwall spring immediately to mind. This had more to do with a reputation for violence, either on or off the pitch, than anything else. And given the competitive nature of football and the tribalism of its supporters, the only thing any notion of violence usually fosters is greater levels of violence. When a club with a certain reputation comes to town, there always seems to be a greater menace in the air as their mere arrival brings out the most unsavoury elements of each home support. So, while there may have been unity between supporters of other clubs in their dislike of Millwall, for example, it was never positive unity.
This is where Milton Keynes Dons come in. Because surely every supporter likes history, tradition and the moral high ground? Nobody likes the idea of switching allegiance, stealing league positions and Pete Winkelman. Any team that faces Milton Keynes immediately gains a small, temporary section of support for the afternoon from up and down the country. This can be viewed in two ways. It can be seen as small-minded and petty. Or it could be looked upon as being indicative of the growing empathy between supporters, particularly among lower league clubs. Non-league sides have long since enjoyed this enlightened view. In contrast, it still seems to be out of reach of the English top flight. This empathy seems to be drawn mainly from the financial struggles of many clubs outside of the Premier League and the recent vogue for supporter-maintained clubs, particularly in the non-league arena.
But it also gathered speed when Milton Keynes Dons came into being. Fans of a wide cross-section of clubs stood together and denounced the notion of franchise football in this country, the league position aspect being the most galling part of the whole episode. This positive unity can only be good for the future of the game. And Milton Keynes Dons supporters are certainly not violent. Some may revel in the unity against them, but this is only to be expected. Why should they care what others think of them any more than fans of other clubs do?
As time goes on, their supporters will become more genuine. Gone will be the fans of other clubs that migrated to Stadium:MK and the distaste that accompanies that concept. New generations will only have known Stadium:MK.
Which brings us neatly to the second point. Regardless of their history, although it is understandable that some people feel unable to see beyond this, Milton Keynes Dons actually do plenty of things far better than other football clubs. There is a real community feel to the club. Admittedly, this had to be the ploy from the start in order to gain support where previously there was none.
But without that captive audience to begin with, Milton Keynes Dons actually feel more like a football club should in some ways. That feeling of helplessness that you feel when your club makes a mind-boggling decision, knowing that you will still faithfully trot along to renew your annual sentence each summer anyway? Imagine having to earn that level of support. There must be far more emphasis on making decisions that appeal to the majority.
Specifically, Milton Keynes Dons have forged strong links in the local community, with former midfielder Paul Mitchell becoming the club’s Community Ambassador two years ago after his premature retirement from the game at the age of 27. In this sense, Winkelman has remained true to his word. After their first game in Milton Keynes, at a time when they were still known as Wimbledon and the administrator was still the most pressing concern, Winkelman addressed the gathered media with this salvo: “I can tell you that over time this will be a proper football club, trying to be part of the community, like everywhere else.”
And the third positive contribution? You only need to look at the Stadium:MK dugout. At present, it is occupied by 30-year-old Karl Robinson. It is a dugout that has previously been home to Paul Ince and Roberto di Matteo, who joined Blackburn Rovers and West Bromwich Albion respectively. Ince returned to Buckinghamshire to weaker effect after failing in the top flight and di Matteo was given the boot from The Hawthorns earlier this season in slightly harsh circumstances, but the fact remains that Milton Keynes seems to provide a good breeding ground for ambitious young managers.
Not just managers, either – Robinson currently employs Robbie Fowler as a coach and recently lost Dietmar Hamann to Leicester City. The club are currently fifth in the League One table, suggesting that the young manager is doing something right. In short, Stadium:MK is ripe poaching ground and, whether this turns out to be Robinson or one of his successors, looks a good bet to supply a genuinely great football manager at some point in the near future.
Finally, finances. Milton Keynes Dons appear to be run in a sensible fashion with no large-scale financial backing or overambitious plans to spend their way up the leagues. Two of their most impressive performers this season – attackers Sam Baldock and Daniel Powell – are Academy graduates. In these days of enforced austerity, this kind of approach is not to be taken lightly and the main threat of franchise football in the future comes from the polar opposite – clubs losing perspective of their place in football’s grand scheme. Plymouth Argyle turned out to be hugely reliant on the eventually unsuccessful World Cup bid. For Milton Keynes, the failure to secure 2018 was merely a minor setback.
This will all be a step too far for some. And several steps too few for Milton Keynes Dons supporters. Maybe it is stuck in some horrible no man’s land and will remain there while missiles are flung back and forth between the two opposing parties. Maybe no-one cares any more. The former seems more likely…